Should I contact bereaved family with photos of their son?
September 10, 2020 2:36 AM   Subscribe

Back in the earlier days of the internet I was close to someone who later committed suicide. I have hundreds of photos of this person their family have never seen, as well as memories. Should I get in touch with them?

I was communicating intensely (non romantically) for a couple of years circa 2001 with this person. He was really exceptionally bright and creative and our passions were exactly the same. This resulted in hundreds of photos, chats, writings that we sent each other on AIM etc. We talked on the phone and sent things in the post but never met. For a good year or so we spoke almost every day online for hours at a time. Then he disappeared. Around 2003 a member of a messageboard we were both on contacted me to say he had committed suicide. It didn't come as a surprise - he had expressed some pretty dark thoughts and had shown me documents related to his mental health which were worrying. He was an extremely kind and generous person and a very talented individual who was clearly struggling more than I realised at the time. He introduced me to a lot of the art and music I am still into today and so I remember him from time to time.

I have all the stuff he sent me sitting on CDRs. I don't really need to look at it that often as I have some happy memories to go on, but I wonder if his family might benefit from seeing it? He was a very energised character who was into photography and loved messing around with his digital camera, and the photos are like a fun and creative visual diary. None of it is dark. I got the sense that he wasn't well understood by his family, but I still have the feeling that these photos should be enjoyed by someone who was close (closer than me?) to him.

I have not been in a similar bereavement situation and so it's hard to put myself in their shoes, especially with the passage of time. (I should add that there is no doubt he existed and is dead, obits, grave etc are viewable online - this is not a Kaycee situation.) The last thing I want to do is cause upset. The alternative is that the CDRs will eventually be binned. I am not interested in uploading them or creating a tribute to him online or making this some sort of art project. Thanks in advance for any advice.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would call this a no. That's my personal opinion. The question is (a bit old admittedly, but useful nevertheless) "who benefits?"
The idea of bereaved people benefitting from photos they didn't know existed is at best theoretical, while the danger that it would actually disturb their grieving process (i.e. no benefit at all) is quite real. The prospect of you benefitting from having made contact with their private circle is unknown, but seems rather unlikely.
So ask yourself whether you on your own would benefit more from saving these CDRs for a while and deciding later whether they are worth anything to you, or from getting rid of them straight away.
posted by Namlit at 2:48 AM on September 10 [1 favorite]

I've lost a few close people to suicide. It's not possible to say with certainty whether your friend's family would want the pictures, but I would definitely ask.

A quick note saying you have all those memories and would like to give them the CDs if they want them isn't terribly intrusive and any sadness it may bring up would be minimal and short lived I'd imagine.

I have reminders of a dear friend in my house and, while they make me a bit melancholy sometimes, I'm still glad I have them. A mutual friend sent me a photo some years after her death. I was and am happy to have it.

I'd contact them. Gently.
posted by mewsic at 3:00 AM on September 10 [42 favorites]

Is there any way you can reach out and ask them? I think I would want to see the pictures if this were my loved one - I find photos of people I've lost very comforting and would love to hear about your memories and how they'd influenced your life - but that's going to vary by person and I don't think there's any way of predicting how they'd feel. Still, I think you should reach out if you can.
posted by DingoMutt at 3:01 AM on September 10 [5 favorites]

I would thank you from the bottom of an eternally grateful heart.
posted by sageleaf at 3:02 AM on September 10 [38 favorites]

I would want them. Even if they hurt, and I had my suicide loss 25 years ago. Ask.
posted by frumiousb at 3:08 AM on September 10 [20 favorites]

Given that the death happened over 17 years ago, and given the nature of the pictures as you describe, I would reach out and gently ask if they would like them. And let them know you will safely dispose of the materials if they would rather not.
posted by like_neon at 3:17 AM on September 10 [10 favorites]

Of course, everyone is different. But when a friend of mine killed himself, his family reached out to all his contacts for precisely this.
posted by athirstforsalt at 3:22 AM on September 10 [7 favorites]

Absolutely you should ask. I would be shocked if they didn’t want them.
posted by FencingGal at 3:46 AM on September 10 [11 favorites]

Yes, I would offer it to them. Also - in my experience CD-Rs can degrade over time, so if you have the ability I think it would be good to make a backup onto something else, even if only to avoid the situation of sending a CD-R to them and they pull it out eventually when they feel ready and can’t access the photos.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:50 AM on September 10 [19 favorites]

When I think of loved ones who have passed, what I wouldn’t give for more photos of them. I’m honestly very surprised that some think his family wouldn’t want to see these. I’ve seen people reach out Facebook, desperate for any pictures that might be out there. Ask if they’d like them. I think you could be doing a really wonderful thing for those left behind.
posted by Jubey at 4:34 AM on September 10 [10 favorites]

Will they be able to read the data, as is? If not, I would make sure it's accessible first. Because if they got the disc and then couldn't view the contents it would be heart breaking.
posted by wenestvedt at 4:35 AM on September 10 [17 favorites]

My husband died from an apparent suicide in 2016. His death was complicated by a lot of difficult factors and different people in his family had differing levels of ability to accept/deal with what had happened. It was extremely traumatic and left people hurt, angry, and left a child without a father.

We would absolutely want these pictures. And we’re only a couple years out. I would check to make sure the photos are accessible on the media before reaching out. I guess there’s an off chance they won’t want them; people can be weird. But that seems like the much less likely outcome. They’re basically a treasure.
posted by jeoc at 5:10 AM on September 10 [20 favorites]

Oh yes, I would want them. And yes, I would contact that man's family.
posted by james33 at 5:20 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]

As others have said, make sure the CD-Rs are still readable before reaching out.
posted by mekily at 5:56 AM on September 10 [5 favorites]

The pictures yes, after getting consent from a family member to send them.

The memories, I'm not sure what you mean by that. I'm not so sure I'd send anything written without a review of what is in them. For example recorded AIM discussions of his disclosure of mental health stuff to you could be something he never shared with them, thoughts about family members, and other things that might not have been notable to you, but could be to them in varying ways. It could bring up lots of feelings to navigate those types of things and I'd be less likely to share those things without a thorough review, or selecting a few conversations/writing that were very him in a good way.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:04 AM on September 10 [5 favorites]

One of the losses of grief is that when a person dies, their story stops unfolding. After a certain point you think you'll never be surprised by them; learn anything new about them. You have the chance to share an aspect of your friend with their family that they might never have seen. Not just the pictures, although those are likely to be incredibly precious: you have memories of their kindness, talents and gifts you could share if you and they are willing. Your reaching out also offers the solace that they are not alone in remembering or caring about this person. There is all the reason in the world to offer this to their family. It would be a tremendous gift.

That said, I would be prepared for a rejection or lack of response. That doesn't mean it would be wrong to offer, just that there is a possibility that due to their own relationship with their family member or grieving process, they may not choose to accept. You don't mention how you would get in contact with the family; if possible, I would suggest casting a wide net so as many folks as possible have the chance to respond, and no one individual person is in the position of having to make the choice for everyone else.
posted by prewar lemonade at 6:11 AM on September 10 [18 favorites]

(To clarify, by sharing memories, I mean a brief note describing what he was like as you did for us above, ideally with an example or two. This is in no way an obligation, if you are only interested or comfortable in sharing the photos that is completely your prerogative!)
posted by prewar lemonade at 6:19 AM on September 10

Here's what I would do, in order:

1) check to make sure the pictures are still accessible and can be moved to another storage medium
2) make yourself a backup copy
3) contact the family
4) if they want the photos, send only that.

I'd skip the writing because it's something I'd see as too personal, and not necessarily something the decedent would consent to share - his choice to share it with you isn't a choice to share it with the world and there's a lot that I share online because I'm secure in the knowledge that my dad is technologically illiterate and will never find it.

This is a very kind thing to do, and I think the answers here are overwhelming - most people would want this, most people who don't would still see it as a kind gesture, and it's possible that they're really weird and will be weird at you but those odds are slim.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:47 AM on September 10 [17 favorites]

The mother of my friend who died would absolutely want these. Double check the cd's still work before reaching out.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:18 AM on September 10

For sure reach out and offer to send the photos as long as you've made sure the discs are readable! Absolutely.

Probably not the writing, though. The writing was meant for you, and likely represents part of the decedent that they didn't choose to share with the family. Even beautiful and creative work can be bewildering or strange to people who aren't the target audience. (Of course you can reassess this after you've established contact with them and seen what they're like and how they've responded to the photo offer.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:52 AM on September 10

A dear friend of mine lost his brother to suicide, and after the funeral he told me how wonderful it was to see all the photos from his brother’s friends that the family had never seen before. It completed the picture of who their brother was, in a way - to see him as those outside the family saw him, and to see how cherished he was.

I would absolutely contact the family and ask.
posted by umwhat at 7:57 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]

I know a couple of those "weird" (I say that fondly) people who probably wouldn't want the discs, but they wouldn't be offended or hurt by being contacted. And, indeed, in the same family there's someone else who absolutely would want them, even though the other people would claim that that's counter-productive to their healing. So while you might be wading into very complex dynamics, I still think offering would be a kindness.
posted by teremala at 8:22 AM on September 10 [1 favorite]

When I lost my adult daughter, her vast community of friends were so supportive to me and part of that was sharing the photos and stories they had. I would welcome this forever, it is both about the photos and about being reminded that she was so much loved by others as well as me.
posted by InkaLomax at 8:55 AM on September 10 [4 favorites]

I would absolutely reach out to the family and ask if they want them.

My experience: I had a roommate who (years after we lived together) committed suicide, and their partner reached out to ask if I had any photos of them that she could share with their child.

It's possible the family may not want them, but I don't think you will be causing them pain. And this may be a real blessing to them.
posted by tuesdayschild at 9:05 AM on September 10 [2 favorites]

Yes, I'd say reach out to them and say you have fond memories of him, and you have photos that you'd be happy to send them. I'd be inclined not to give or even mention the writing - those words were meant for you. That's especially true for the parts that detail his mental anguish, but also, people present different facets of themselves to different people, and it could be so difficult and confusing to discover a whole different person in his writing from the one they had a relationship with, with no chance to talk to the person and ask them about the things they wrote. Also, as a posthumous favour to your friend. I'd find it very disconcerting to think of my online conversations with friends being shared with other people after my death.

If they respond positively to your offer of the photos, you could write something yourself to send with the pics, that details some of your memories, the kinds of things you talked about, some specific anecdotes that you think they would like, or some of the things you particularly appreciated about their loved one. I once wrote a letter with about half a dozen anecdotes/memories/reflections to a friend who'd lost his dad, and it was very well-received.
posted by penguin pie at 10:05 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]

I am the person in the family's position. I would probably cry really hard after hearing from you, say hell yes, and then cry a lot more when the pictures came but also be so grateful. They might cry and say hell no, but that's okay too. So yeah, I would ask.
posted by namemeansgazelle at 2:43 PM on September 10 [5 favorites]

YES YES YES YES YES. I lost my mother to suicide in 1993.
posted by selfmedicating at 3:52 PM on September 10 [4 favorites]

I lost my son to suicide a year and a half ago and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to get my hands on anything about him. Even a scrap of paper with his grocery list would be like gold to me. Contact his parents. Please.
posted by _Mona_ at 4:45 PM on September 10 [10 favorites]

I would definitely reach out and ask if they'd like them. I'm recently bereaved (not suicide though) and one of the most healing parts of the process for me was looking at all the photos that different people had of that person, and being able to see the person at different stages of their life - seeing what they experienced outside of what I had with them.
posted by thereader at 4:46 PM on September 10 [2 favorites]

Please move these files to a flash drive.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:10 PM on September 10 [2 favorites]

I hope you reach out to them and ask. I would so so thrilled and happy to have a few extra pieces of a loved one who was gone.
posted by bahama mama at 5:22 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

I would definitely contact them.

And, as CDRs have a very limited lifetime, I would immediately make 2 or 3 copies of all of the images/files to more reliable forms of media.

When it comes to data backups,
Two [copies] is One, and One [copy] is None
posted by blueberry at 5:28 AM on September 12

I would be so grateful for these things. One more vote for contacting the family and asking them.
posted by Avalow at 10:56 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

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